Guest review: Aphex Twin – “Selected Ambient Works 85-92” (1992, R&S)

 

“We are the music makers… and we are the dreamers of dreams.” – “Ode”, Arthur O’Shaughnessy (1874)

You might probably think that this quote at the beginning was completely uncalled for and irrelevant. Quite to the contrary, though – because it bears a direct relation to this review’s subject. In the 1971 film adaptation of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” the aforementioned words were spoken by the titular Willy Wonka as played by Gene Wilder. Gradually it became a very often used sample in electronica: though there are debates in regards to who used this sample first, the general agreement seems to be that 808 State did it, in a track called “Nephatiti” on their 1991 album “Ex:El”.

So what’s the big deal about these words? While there are traces of human speech all over the album that I’ll be reviewing, the words up there are the only discernible ones. One might think of them as the arc ones for the whole thing: even though they probably were only chosen because they sounded cool, we love to think that if something is used, it has some deeper, essential meaning.

And so, as a further measure in losing all friends and alienating people, (and because it’s been a long time since I reviewed anything, not just music… and because Ian has already covered the second part of this amazing series) I’ll be reviewing Aphex Twin’s “Selected Ambient Works 85-92” in this space. And now, a certainly unnecessary personal recollection.

“SAW 85-92” has been a massively influential record for yours truly, for many reasons. I first heard a glimpse when I was 11 or 12 years old – I can’t remember how old I was for sure – and I was blown away to say the least. Having only heard Kraftwerk’s electronic music before, I was surprised that not only could electronica be all sterile, mechanical and detached like many of Kraftwerk’s albums were (“The Man-Machine”, “Computer World” being the worst offenders… but in a good way. Yeah, I contradict myself from time to time) but also that it could be warm, and atmospheric. Ever since, even when I moved on to other influences like Daft Punk’s French house or deep house from the likes of Larry Heard or Moodymann or even my next step after Richard D. James (that would have to be Orbital) I always tried to replicate the lushness of “Selected Ambient Works 85-92” in my productions. Your mileage may vary whether I really succeeded (if you take Ian’s reviews of my work into account).

But anyways, the other reason why this album was so influential on me because – if we are to believe the title – Aphex Twin made some of the tracks on display here when he was just 14 years old. That might include the track “I” (called aptly enough, all things considered and if you’re not skeptic). Well, such a motivation for bedroom producers worldwide! Many of them probably started out thinking “well, if he could put out material of such quality when he was 14, then so can I!” and off they go, failing miserably most of the time. If we are still to believe the word of God, most of the tracks feature circuit-bent synthesizers and drum machines, Roland TR-606 and TR-808 in particular. Well, the sounds of TR-606 and TR-808 are all over many tracks, like “Ptolemy” and “Ageispolis”. However, there are also sounds that are ubiquitous in the whole of electronic music, like TB-303 in “Green Calx” – that indicates that back in those days, James was still pretty much tied to the music of the day and not locked up in his twisted sound world, like on his latter day releases – “drukQs” being the most obvious example.

Also springing up is Aphex Twin’s talent for making melodies out of nothing – while “Digeridoo EP” that immediately preceded this release was an absolutely abrasive affair and was more percussive than melodic, “SAW 85-92” is the direct opposite. Although there are still some exceptions to the rule (the aforementioned “Green Calx” and “Hedphelym” spring to mind) they are less punishing than they were on “Digeridoo EP”, thanks to massive amounts of reverb that smother their unrelenting heaviness.

As for making melodies out of nothing, well, just listen. Just one example: “Pulsewidth”. OK, so we have vaguely ravey stabs going on in the introduction. That’s alright, you can just have the simple bassline underneath – simple as in the base note over and over again – and the Amen break, because it’s the sign of the times, obviously. Wait, what? Four-to-the-floor alright, but self-programmed? Circuit-bent? And there are other things going on in the bassline other than the base note? It actually carries its own melody? What the hell are those noises? And what’s more terrifying, there’s yet another melody toward the second quarter of the track?!

Well, you know the drill. It happens all the time in this album.

Either way, “Selected Ambient Works 85-92” has been called “the watershed of modern electronic music” for damn good reason. While it ultimately didn’t show any clues where should Aphex Twin go next – taken in perspective, because what’s been expected of him is yet more productions in the same vein – it still stands completely separate in Richard D. James’ output. Makes one wonder why didn’t anybody have an idea to propel this sound towards fame and lots of money and whatever. And as for highlights/lowlights and the score, I guess they’ll have to go away for this album – everything has to be taken as a whole and you, and only you, are to judge how good a certain record is. (Even if you like to be led.)

Sergey Konovalov / Love Songs on the Radio

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